By: Michelle Chambers of Chambers & Associates. © CCH Canadian Limited.

Organizational Change

Change is swirling all around us and is being increasingly felt by all organizations. Globalization of the workforce, technological advances, and social changes are becoming the norm, not the exceptions. Change is occurring at a faster pace requiring organizations to become increasingly agile. Today's leaders must be very competent at supporting and managing change within their organizations to ensure long-term sustainability. Despite the importance of being able to adapt and change, frequently, two-thirds of all organizational change efforts fail. In fact, much has been written about successfully managing change in organizations. So what do we do?

Organizational change could be defined as "the demands placed on organizations or organizational subunits that require significant departures from people's current routines and behaviours and the success of which depends upon those who are affected". It could be a departmental change organized by a leader or it could be a transformational change that affects a whole organization, such as the introduction of a new technology throughout the organization. Just look at the introduction of social media and its impact on the world of human resources, especially in the area of recruitment, as well as in the rapidly merging interface between the employee's work and home life.

The Role of Leadership

Creating significant organizational change is a challenging and complicated process. If change is seen as taking an organization on a journey from its current state to its desired future state, and dealing with all of the problems along the way, then it is about both leadership and management. According to an AMA study (American Management Association, 1994), the keys to successful change are leadership, followed by corporate values, and communication.

If we know leadership is so critical for successful change efforts, then why do so many organizations fail at successfully creating and maintaining change? In some cases, leaders don't possess the necessary skills to successfully lead change initiatives within their organizations. They often underestimate the complexity of the organization or system. There might be a lack of effective senior management modelling and lack of accountability, especially within the leadership team.

As well, there might be management resistance or time pressures, and lack of change structures. Furthermore, leaders may not establish a high enough sense of urgency, and permit obstacles to block the vision. They might have underestimated the power of vision and thus undercommunicated their own vision and the reasons for the change in the first place.

Finally, there might be lack of follow-through or reinforcement, such as the creation of supportive, short-term wins. Since change requires systemic practices, leaders may have neglected to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture (e.g., through policies, procedures, and informal culture). Change is not a linear process. It is very complex and can take many years to become observable and evident within the organization.

While change must be well managed, directed, and controlled, it is leadership that makes the difference. Leadership of a successful change effort requires vision, strategy, and a culture of shared values that supports the change strategy, and empowers, motivates, and inspires those who are involved or affected by the change. So where should a leader begin? Successful change efforts require leaders to develop better ways of analyzing the following:

  • What they think they need or want to change.
  • What they know about themselves and the others who will be asked to lead and make the behavioural adjustments associated with the change.
  • What they know about the context (both internal and external) in which the change is going to take place (e.g., are other change efforts underway?).

Then, with the information in hand, the leader can develop a strategy as to how to go about it, when to do what, and how fast to move.

Characteristics of Great Change Leaders

Great change leaders require a diverse competency base. Successful change efforts often note that great change leaders share the following characteristics:

  • Have a clear, shared, and inspiring vision. They really understand where the business is going, after engaging in collaborative visioning work with their people.
  • Communicate well. They are open in conversations with their people and engage them in finding win-win solutions to change.
  • Are consistent. Every activity within a change process is delivered in line with a fair, trusted, and honest plan.
  • Have great rapport and close relationships with their people, which enables change processes to be delivered more easily.
  • Are trusted by their people, who know that their leader cares and is doing the best he or she can for the good of as many people as possible.
  • Plan well and consider all options. They have decided the best-value course of action and have checked what will and what won't work—no surprises.
  • Have a disciplined approach and stick to the planned process and time scales for the changes to be made.
  • Treat people well by honouring people for themselves, and treating them with respect and dignity during the difficult and often tense times brought about by rapid change.
  • Are results focused and make decisions objectively, based on true value creation as their overriding goal.The Future of Change Leadership—Building Change Resilience

Since the role of leadership in change efforts has been identified, what should leaders do for the future since the pace of change seems to be accelerating?

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that leaders would try to build change resilience within themselves and their employees. How individuals respond to change can make all the difference to how resilient they are to it. Indeed, with the right approach, change can be a really valuable, exciting opportunity for organizations, for management teams—and, vitally—for those employees who will experience the changes and be the key people to take the initiative forward successfully. Change brings a whole new set of possibilities for all of us, whoever we are—employees in an organization, or leaders engaging with us to dynamically drive our businesses onwards and upwards. We all have the potential to embrace change with a view to the opportunities it provides.

Most of us have likely experienced organizational change, and have seen the impact of major change on our team's or department's productivity. When an individual faces more demand for change than he or she can absorb at that time, the result is often an increase in dysfunctional behaviour, which can manifest itself through resistance, employee absenteeism, and other factors. To promote successful adaptation, leaders must help their employees recover from their own disrupted expectations and become more resilient. Resilient people usually prosper during disorder and disruption. They face no fewer challenges than others when confronting a crisis, but compared to others, they often regain their balance faster, achieve more of their objectives, and maintain a higher level of quality and productivity in their work. In fact, when resilient people face the ambiguity, anxiety, and loss of control that come with major change, they tend to grow stronger rather than becoming depleted. Thus, in the face of continuous organizational change, the role of leadership itself will continue to change and adapt, alongside the change experienced by the workforce.

Contributed by Michelle Chambers, M.Ed, CHRP, CTDP, Principal and Organizational Development Consultant, Chambers & Associates, specializing in leadership development and coaching, team development, change management, process facilitation, and customized learning. See